Gary Scott Smith in his book, Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford, 2011) has written a detailed, in-depth, and far-reaching study of the history of Heaven in American thought. Beginning with the Puritans, Smith highlights in each chapter a different era (Victorian, Pre-war, Civil War, etc.), documents that era’s historical distinctives (wars, death rates, major events), spotlights its notable theologians (ranging from Jonathan Edwards, to D.L. Moody, to Billy Graham, to Mitch Albom), and then discusses how the people of that era, given their history and influences, formulated the doctrine of Heaven. In this way, Smith seeks, through alternating survey and analysis, to document the changing perception of the afterlife that has followed the progression of the American experiment. On the whole, Smith’s book contained many historical gems as well as some interesting theological observations. Unfortunately, these insights were often rendered opaque by Smith’s oversaturation of data. The result was a book with good information—if you have the patience to mine it out, that is.
Historical study, then, is perhaps the best term to describe what Scott has done, and while Smith’s history is often interesting, this is also a weakness of the book. For example, Smith’s chapter-by-chapter structure is fairly rigid. Each chapter has a survey of history, a survey of theologians, a section discussing perceptions of afterlife, one on perceptions of hell, and a conclusion. When Smith discusses the work of theologians in the given time period, he fills his paragraphs with quotations—often of only one or two words at a time—to such a degree that one finds the theologians blurring together. Quotes, in other words, were not used either economically or very efficiently. The net result of Smith’s structuring and quote-density is that Heaven in the American Imagination is often tedious to read.
Still, within the tedium there are real gems. Many of these are from the descriptions of the various time periods he examines. For instance, we learn that the perception of Heaven during the Civil War was uniquely framed by the tragic loss of life: Heaven was the place where you were reunited with those loved ones. Another fascinating section documented the conceptions of Heaven as formulated by America’s black slaves—whether it be as a place of peace from their labor, or for justice from their masters. Or, to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe was partly responsible for the myth that deceased children become guardian angels when they die. These kinds of historical connections (and developments) were some of the most compelling parts of the book.
As I have intimated, however, the forest of ideas is sometimes lost for the trees of historical detail, and to get at the real analysis of the book takes a little ingenuity. So, according to my analysis of Smith’s book, I believe there are four things (generally) to observe about the history of Heaven in American thought.
#1. There is always an orthodox line. Throughout the history of Christianity in America, there has always been a consistent strain of Christian orthodoxy which upholds the traditional understanding of the afterlife: that it is attained by faith in Christ alone, that there is a real Heaven and a real Hell, that choices in this life determine one’s ultimate destiny. Furthermore, along with this strain there is a consistent voice which reminds us that Heaven is about God more than it is about us (the object of Heaven is relationship to and union with the Trinity). This orthodox line is a refreshing reminder that truth, though it sometimes seems dormant, continues to thrive.
#2. Alongside the orthodox line there is always a popular perception of Heaven. This popular perception was present even in the earliest founders of America, whose Deist beliefs led them to think that doing good and being a good person would warrant acceptance into Heaven. In one form or another, this perception of Heaven has also always been present in American thought. Thus, disconnected from Christian orthodoxy, Americans felt liberated to populate and shape the afterlife after their own desires. Rather than being about a God they may or may not believe in, Heaven became more and more about us.
#3. Between the orthodox and the popular line, a host of ‘theologians’ have attempted to bridge the gap by accommodating Christian theology to popular tastes. Hell is softened, Heaven is reinforced by theologically whitewashing the desires of the masses, and the entry requirements are reduced (good behavior is enough for some, others think everybody gets saved, and so on). Fuzzy theological books about visits to heaven are some of the best examples of this accommodation—especially because they emphasize all the pleasure and peace of Heaven, while reducing the need for obligations in the present. In short, these popular accounts of ‘Heaven’ are most often wonderful opiates against real action or reflection.
#4. There are four historical features of Heaven, and one modern one. The oldest and most orthodox perception is that Heaven is a place of divine contemplation. We are exposed to the Trinity, and worship and enjoy the Godhead forever. The nature of this enjoyment, while described in various ways (harps, singing, worship, contemplation, etc.) is never truly described, but, when in doubt, Christians have retreated to superlatives (‘unending,’ ‘wondrous,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ etc.). The Puritan foundation of American theology helped to cement this perception of Heaven, but as the Puritan influence faded, Americans began to import into Heaven desires that were framed by their times. For some, heavenly rewards were the focus of Heaven (those who suffered, lost children, were slaves, feared survival). For others, heavenly reunion was the key (especially during wartime, but also when infant mortality was high). For still others, Heaven was the place where we fulfill our talents and abilities (perfect knowledge for the Puritans, but work for later believers, and singing, dancing, skill-usage, and thrill-seeking for 20th century Americans). Finally, and most recently, heaven has been conceived as a place of therapeutic healing, where our anxieties regarding self-identity are resolved in the peace of inner harmony.
So, what does all this mean? My own assessment is this: that the more narcissistic we have become as a culture, the more we have lost out on the reality of Heaven. Focusing on ourselves, we have cheapened Heaven with our cut-rate desires. This must necessarily be the case, because Heaven and narcissism exist in an inverse relationship, and we must continually ask, “Is Heaven about God, or is Heaven about me?” If the focus on Heaven is about what I get, and what I experience, then I’m on the wrong track. If the focus is on what God is doing (and by proxy on experiencing Him), then I am on the right track. And the line that is drawn between the two is the line called narcissism. Seen this way, the history of American theology appears to be the history of increasing, and increasingly blessed and accommodated, narcissism. Heaven goes from being God’s gift, to the reward we are owed for good lives. Hell shifts from being a place of revealed, final judgment, to being an inconvenient theological pariah. Heaven shifts from being the place where we encounter God, to the place where we get rewards, meet people we want to see, and exercise our skills and talents. Are these features inherently untrue? By no means—but they cannot be the focus of Heaven, and if they are, then they are idols. And the fullness of our narcissistic fruit may be bearing a crop even now—Heaven is the place of ultimate self-fulfillment and healing, where it is entirely about us, and only marginally (if at all) about God. Hell, the very thing that judges our narcissism, is then fully eclipsed. We are left, then, with a Heaven that is for us, about us, and leaves nothing to trouble us at all. It is a place that reminds me of something George MacDonald once said, “The one principle of Hell is: I am my own.” Hell, indeed, is narcissism extended to eternity. Heaven, by contrast, is the opposite: it is about someone and something else; it is eternal self-sacrifice and eternal renewal in relationship with the Triune God.
All in all, Smith’s book was an interesting and informative read, although it was bogged down by its organization and oversaturation with detail. Nevertheless, I came away with a renewed appreciation of the Puritans, of Jonathan Edwards (who I now suspect really is America’s greatest-ever theologian!) and some fascinating details about the Civil War period in American History. I also developed some interesting perceptions about American thought—chief among them was this: that while Americans are saturated with desires, they are also starving for significance. As a consequence of their hunger, they have consistently projected their confusion into the afterlife for over 200 years. What, then, is Heaven in the American imagination? For some (the orthodox, a small group) is the presence of God. For others (most everyone else), it is the projection into eternity of the fulfillment of our temporary desires. And that is a discouraging revelation indeed.
Heaven in the American Imagination: 4.5 stars for content, but only 2 for readability and organization. Final judgment: 3.5.